August is extremely hot in the Mediterranean city of Tel Aviv. Temperatures are in the mid 30s and humidity is high. This summer was no different in Israel’s largest and busiest metropolis. Still, when war broke out on Israel’s northern border it was obvious that this would be no ordinary summer for the city which has seen terrorist attacks, suicide bombings and even rocket attacks in the past.
For most Swedes these are all events from the “utrikesnyheter” section of the news, and the conflict in the Middle East is almost an abstract subject. There are, however, some Swedes who experience these events as a daily reality.
One of them is Sandra Weil, who has lived in Israel for the last 10 years and has already become used to its realities:
“Having your bag checked when entering malls and cinemas has become something you do without thinking,” she says, adding, “when you hear more than one ambulance at a time it often means that there has been a terror attack”.
Sandra tells me about life in this lively economic and cultural centre which this summer was crowded with refugees from the north and worried relatives of reserve soldiers.
“I have friends of friends who have been murdered in terror attacks, but life here goes on so quickly. The need of continuing one’s daily life is so strong and you don’t take things for granted the way one does back in Sweden.”
Sandra, who follows the Swedish press regularly, is often concerned by the picture of Israel depicted in it. Though she does often think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she says she doesn’t feel it in her daily life. Many aspects of life in the region are unknown to those who don’t live in it, she says.
“Many Swedes don’t understand the situation here and in the rest of the Middle East. The picture that is given in Sweden is very simplified. Swedish public opinion is also influenced by images, not the facts. The press photo always takes a side, just like war photography. People know what they see.”
But what exactly do people in Sweden see? What is the truth about Sweden’s relationship with the Middle East? Is Swedish public opinion well informed or is it biased?
In a speech this summer, Jan Eliasson, then Sweden’s foreign minister said: “The Middle East is a region in desperate need of peaceful solutions based on international law. Negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians must take place as soon as possible”.
Eliasson also urged the sides to return to the Quartet’s Roadmap and said “the goal must be Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace”. These statements are consistent with Sweden’s traditional foreign policy.
For decades Sweden has based its foreign policy on non-alignment and neutrality. In fact, apart from Olof Palme’s administrations, most Swedish governments have kept a low profile in foreign affairs. Sweden does, however, give generously to numerous humanitarian projects all over the world and plays a significant role in international peacekeeping efforts. Thanks to this, Swedish soldiers and observers are often seen on the streets of Beirut, Gaza and Hebron.
The Middle East has also seen Swedish diplomatic efforts. In 1948 Folke Bernadotte became the first UN mediator in the region. Another Swede, Gunnar Jarring, was sent in 1967. Other Swedes, including Palme, who mediated in the Iraq-Iran war, and Hans Blix, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, have also had important roles in the region.
Non-alignment and neutrality may be Sweden’s official policy but things are a little more complicated when it comes to Swedish media and public opinion.
Anders Englund is another Swede living in Israel. His experience, and his academic background studying the history of science and ideas, Jewish studies and media, give him an interesting perspective.
“As a Swede living in Israel, I’m aware of both the complexity of the conflict and of the Swedish tendency to see it in terms of black and white,” he says.
“Swedes like to support the underdog and are extremely sensitive to human rights issues, but in this conflict both sides claim to be the underdog.”
This might explain why Sweden was recently the only European country to permit the visit of a Hamas leader while the movement openly calls for the destruction of Israel, sponsors suicide bombings and is accused of war crimes. It might also explain why in April Sweden dropped out of an international air force exercise because Israel was participating.
The Middle East has always been an interesting subject for Swedes.
“During the 50s and 60s Sweden supported Israel and its attempt to build a Jewish socialist state,” Anders explains.
“Later on, global and regional political changes caused a policy shift. With Palme’s outspoken foreign policy and new agenda, Sweden openly opposed the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and South African Apartheid. It also adopted many new causes around the world, including the Middle East.”
“Since then, many Palme supporters and followers have become policy makers and media personalities. This and the fact that the Middle East conflict is both accessible and dominates international politics caused a deep Swedish involvement which is manifested in diplomacy, economic and military ties and excessive foreign aid.”
What do Israelis think about the Swedish reaction to the latest developments? Ido, a 30 year old student from Tel Aviv tells me, “when I heard that Jan Eliasson said Israel’s response to the attack on its northern border was disproportionate, I wondered what exactly he meant”.
Eliasson, who spoke after Hezbollahs’s attack on Israeli border patrols that started the last round of hostilities, while acknowledging Israel’s right to defend itself, said he was “deeply critical” of Israel’s thrust into Lebanese territory.
“What exactly is a proportionate response for an unprovoked attack followed by intentional bombing of civilians?” asks Ido.
Many Israelis are also frustrated because of the repeated European boycotts and demonstrations which they say always seem to be aimed at Israel, the only democracy in the region.
“Why don’t you read about spontaneous demonstrations and boycotts against Iran for its violation of human rights and its public executions, against Syria’s totalitarian regime which supports terrorist organizations and against restrictions of freedom of speech and systematic discrimination in Saudi Arabia”, asks Ido.
“Somehow it seems that human rights violations throughout the Arab world don’t interest European public opinion as much as so-called Israeli aggression.”
A deeper look into the conflict shows it is much more than a struggle between nations, cultures and religions. It’s a conflict within them. The latest political developments in Israel prove that most Israelis are ready for compromise with their Arab neighbors, just like most Lebanese and Palestinians would probably prefer a peaceful rebuilding of their countries to more civil war and strife.
The real conflict is between those on all sides who wish to see the region as a modern, prosperous and peaceful one and those who advocate an ultra religious undeveloped region, worshipping death and economically exploited by the rest of the world. This is exactly where Sweden’s diplomatic experience and commitment to peace could be more meaningful.
Though recent reports claimed government officials in Jerusalem were unofficially expressing support for Sweden’s newly elected government, the truth is that both blue and red sides of Swedish politics should think again about their commitment to Sweden’s policy of peace seeking and support of progress and human rights.
Sweden’s left wingers might do well to update their foreign policy and abandon their almost automatic responses of condemnations of Israel.
Sweden’s right wing parties, now they are in power, should perhaps start thinking about their new administrative responsibility. Supporting moderates on all sides of the conflict and taking a real part in international efforts to bring a just solution to this troubled region might be a good start.